Everything is lighter, more casual and easygoing in the summertime: fashion, food, our moods and even the cocktails that we imbibe.
The sweltering days between Memorial Day and Labor Day draw us to refreshments that are fruity, cooling, and uncomplicated. The tried-and-true Corona with lime, rum and Coke, and vodka and cranberry juice will always be popular options. Yet for those who like to branch out, there are a multitude of inventive yet simple drinks that, with one sip, will transport you to a breezy beach or a swanky poolside.
Restaurants throughout West Hartford are offering signature summer cocktails that are sure to put a spring in your step and a Beach Boys song in your heart. This reporter was given the difficult (… not!) task of visiting some of the town’s most popular happy hour locations to interview the bartenders and discuss with them the most popular cocktails on their summer menus.
Of course, for research purposes, it was imperative that I sample their concoctions – a task that I approached cautiously and with great restraint since a swig of NyQuil can leave me tipsy.
At on New Britain Avenue, bartender Jenn Hoff puts together one of the restaurant’s signature drinks – a Lemon Basil Martini. Its simple ingredients of Ketel One Citroen, basil and lemonade combine to create a clean and satisfying play between the aromatic herb and the tangy citrus.
Hoff assembles the drink quickly, chilling a martini glass by filling it with soda water and ice. While that chills, she combines Ketel One Citroen – a vodka infused with lemon and lime essence – with basil that has been muddled with simple sugar syrup. She then adds lemonade, shakes it together and pours it into the chilled glass that has been rimmed with sugar.
Hoff says it is one of the restaurant’s most popular cocktails and “a really nice contrast with the lemon and the fresh basil.”
At , Derek Vitale, who has tended bar in the restaurant for three years, has invented his own spicy version of the classic Arnold Palmer drink that combines iced tea and lemonade. His drink, The Peach Kicker, combines lime, agave syrup, Ciroc peach vodka, Jeremiah Sweet Tea vodka, lemonade and jalapeño – hence the “kicker.”
Vitale’s drink was good enough to be paired with famous barbeque chef Bobby Flay’s food at last January’s Winefest at Mohegan Sun.Vitale related how that happened.
“A group of Max bartenders went to an event sponsored by Diageo, one of the world’s biggest liquor importers, to do a scotch tasting at a one day event. We had a mini drink contest because on the eighth floor of the building they have cafeteria with a full bar where after hours they do a happy hour for employees. My drink, The Peach Kicker, did not win the contest but a couple of the judges were the executives from Diageo and afterward, they asked who I was and they asked if I would like to pair my drink with Bobby Flay’s food at the Mohegan Sun Festival. The judges were obviously on to something because Vitale says that Max’s “sells a ton of them.”
Across the street at , bartender George Coko demonstrates how to make one of the restaurant’s bestselling happy hour cocktails. His Grapefruit Gimlet practically screams summer refreshment as it combines Absolut ruby red vodka, agave nectar, and fresh ruby red grapefruit juice shaken together. It’s garnished with a slice of grapefruit and served in a chilled martini glass.
“It’s a great drink anytime but it pairs very well with Sunday brunch,” states Coko.
Over in Blue Back Square, has become very well known for its upscale Latin cuisine and its signature margaritas. Hillary Bascetta tends the busy bar area and recommends their Patron Margarita to beat the heat. It combines Patron Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, Pomegranate Tangerine juice and a half a squeezed lime. Stir all together and serve over ice. It doesn’t hurt that the end result is a beautiful drink the color of a fiery sunset.
Another Blue Back happy hour hotspot is . Bartender Michael Azevedo served as a medic in Afghanistan. While there, he pondered what do to with his life when he returned to the States. He immersed himself in books about bartending and decided that was the direction he would take.
For him, a science major in school, bartending is like chemistry. “I always think, ‘given these ingredients, what different way can I bring them together to bring about a whole new user experience? An all new totally different taste that you couldn’t find any other way.”
He calls his Coco-Pomegranate Mojito “a great spin-off of a classic that is tried and true. It’s fresh, summery. It’s got the compliments of the lime, simple syrup and mint together. But this is a new approach to it because of the up and coming Pomegranate craze that everyone is enjoying. The addition of the coconut is another summery aspect of it.”
On Park Road, has cultivated a huge following of customers who believe that the restaurant’s burger is the best in town. The bar, particularly known for its unique collection of bourbons and American craft beers, is packed almost every night.
Bartender Joe Grillo has worked there since the restaurant opened six years ago. He suggests the Grape Kool-Aid cocktail for a sweet summery drink. The recipe calls for Three Olives Grape vodka, Blue Caracao, cranberry juice and Sprite – and, Joe says, “it tastes exactly like grape Kool-aid.” Just beware, this “kiddie drink” goes down easily but it packs a wallop.